The prospect of a no-deal Brexit seems to be rising by the day. While it is possible that some last-minute agreement will be reached, we must prepare seriously for the prospect of a departure without one. And slowly, we are beginning to understand what life could be like on the other side.
We have finally seen the long-awaited technical notice on no-deal plans for the Erasmus+ programme from the UK government, swiftly followed by a similar notice published by the European Commission.
There is good news and bad news in these documents.
The good news is that both the UK government and the commission have confirmed that they will take steps to protect those students who are on placements at the point of Brexit. This is hugely important because, according to the commission, on 30 March there will be 14,000 EU students and staff in the UK via Erasmus+ and 7,000 UK participants in EU countries.
Without this commitment, universities in the UK and across Europe might have had to recall their students before they finished their placements, or students might have been left without funds. Although the finer details of how this would work are yet to be seen, the UK government and the commission must be applauded for averting that scenario.
The bad news is that it is now very clear that the UK government does not intend to provide a national replacement for the Erasmus scheme for 2019 and 2020, in the event that they cannot negotiate continued participation in Erasmus itself. This news came just as universities submitted their bids for Erasmus+ funding for 2019 by 5 February.
This is very disappointing indeed. I firmly believe that we need to provide more opportunities for students to gain international exposure as part of their studies. It is good for the individual students; good for their future employers; and good for the UK to encourage a deep network of interpersonal connections around the world.
I have never met a student who has spent time studying, working of volunteering abroad who does not think that the experience was valuable. Often, they use words such as “transformative” and “life changing”.
We know, too, that employers like the skills and attributes displayed by graduates who have spent time abroad as part of their degree – resilience, adaptability and flexibility. And we now have hard data to show that the experiences that these students have set them up for future success: students who go abroad are 20 per cent less likely to be unemployed; 10 per cent more likely to be in graduate jobs and earn, on average 7 per cent more than those without periods abroad.
We also know that students from underrepresented groups have the most to gain from an international experience. Our research demonstrates that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds earn on average 6 per cent more than their peers who studied without periods abroad. Yet these are the students who will be least likely to be able to fund opportunities to study abroad themselves. Erasmus+ grants currently support about half of all outward mobility from the UK. Last year, 16,000 students benefited, supported by nearly €70 million (£61 million).
How sad, then, that the government does not see this as sufficiently important. How frustrating that the money will be there to fund mobility in 2019 if we get a deal with the EU in the next few weeks, but not if we don’t.
As we leave the European Union, surely, we want more of our graduates to develop overseas links; more with the skills to take advantage of international opportunities to trade and export; more who can contribute to the UK’s global reputation and influence; more who can speak foreign languages.
For all the rhetoric, the talk of new trading partnerships and global Britain, this decision tells a different story.
The government should think again. I don’t believe that the people making these decisions get why Erasmus matters. I think they look at the numbers coming in compared with our students going abroad and think that it doesn’t represent good value – missing the point that the answer is not to stop the flow but to increase UK take-up. They look at the short-term cost but not the long-term return. How sad that we should be so short-sighted when we most need vision.
Universities UK is this week launching the #SupportStudyAbroad social media campaign. We’re asking people to share their positive study abroad experiences to show exactly what is at risk with a no-deal Brexit that cuts the UK off from the Erasmus scheme with nothing to replace it.
Vivienne Stern is director of Universities UK International.